The Curious case of a Chinese visitor

Silently they come, unbeknown to most...

Silently they come, unbeknown to most...

People and animals have been visiting Borneo for 50 million years. Many of these visitors have made an impression on this great island. Some lived for a while, then died out, and have become our past, our history. Many others stayed, and evolved into something else, giving rise to new species, new cultures and new languages, and are now identified as truly and uniquely Bornean.

It doesn’t really matter if we Bornean people agree or disagree with whether the pygmy elephant in Sabah evolved on Borneo, or came from Sri Lanka. Neither does it matter if the Iban, Kenyah or Malay were the first peoples on Borneo, or whether they originally came from Burma or from Australia. These are arguments, interesting no doubt, that mean little over the course of the ages. What is true is that Borneo, like the rest of the world, is a result of people and animals moving from one place to another, and a result of rising and falling oceans.

What is also an extremely important question for the three countries that govern the island of Borneo today is what do we do when we get new information? Every now and then, some archaeologist digging a hole somewhere, or some scientist watching birds somewhere, discovers something new. Something we never knew before! And sometimes… just sometimes, this new information is so dramatic that the world starts to discuss it, and letters and emails start flying here and there, asking what is to be done with this new bit of information?

Let’s explore one example. In 2008, a flock of 429 Chinese Egrets were discovered on the mangrove mudflats in Sarawak. This shocked the world, because the Chinese Egret was one of the world’s most endangered species, with a world population (at that time) of just 2,500 individuals, all breeding on just one rocky island off the coast of South Korea. Yes, amazingly, the entire world population breeds in just one area of the Yellow Sea!

Scientists knew that every year, when winter comes to the north, the entire world population of Chinese Egrets spread out each year around the South China Sea, spending the winter months along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Everywhere they were seen, it was one bird here, or five birds there… always in very small numbers. Except for the central Philippines, between the islands of Bohol, Leyte and Cebu. Here, in this tiny spot, there were hundreds.

All the reports and world knowledge was that the central Philippines was the major “wintering” site for the Chinese Egret, and together with this rocky island in Korea, were the world’s two most important sites. They had to be protected to save this species from extinction. Proposals were written up, money was being allocated and experts were gathering in meetings to discuss saving this beautiful white Egret.

Then, out of the blue, we find out about this egret on Borneo, with almost 20% of the entire world population. Nobody was looking at this obviously very important site!

Between 2010 and 2012, small research projects were begun by Malaysian NGOs, and a survey was done across the whole northern coastline of Borneo, covering Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. It confirmed that the entire northern Borneo coast was of critical importance to the Chinese Egret. Almost every egret counted was a Chinese Egret! Several very important sites were also identified, from Bako-Buntal Bay near Kuching, to the Rajang Delta and Brunei Bay.

Efforts to get the Sarawak government’s attention fell on deaf ears. No one was interested. Sarawak was already struggling with saving the Orang Utan, Sabah similarly with the Rhinoceros and pygmy elephant, and Brunei was otherwise occupied. Nothing was known about the Chinese Egret down Kalimantan’s eastern coast.

In the meanwhile, scientists were also investigating the breeding colony in Korea, as were photographers and bird-watchers. So many people were crowding the rocky island that the population started to decline.

So, this is a case where an exciting new discovery leads to confusion, and creates a problem. We suddenly have new information, but are not prepared to receive, or respond to it. We don’t know how to use it! And… worse still, somehow, it seems to get in the way! Either, governments don’t want to know about something new that affects their already laid-out plans, or a great big fuss is made out of it, and birdwatchers clambering over each other to capture that award-winning photograph causes an already endangered species to become even more endangered.

We are all guilty of withholding information we obtain, for various reasons. Sometimes we keep information to ourselves for our own benefit, so that it doesn’t damage ourselves or our plans. Sometimes we keep information to ourselves to protect something else, like not letting people know where a precious orchid is found.

Curiously, the result of withholding information, for whichever reason, is the same. Borneo is an island, but not isolated from the world. Collectively, the governance of Borneo needs to be much more integrated into the mainstream of the world. What happens on Borneo affects other countries. More importantly, what happens on Borneo affects many species that are not confined to Borneo, just like the Chinese Egret. They need a place to breed, and they are losing that… and they need a safe place to see out the winter, and so far, it still has that on Borneo. But for how long? And who is responsible to make sure this beautiful creature continues to exist on earth?